Well-intended people are seeking solutions to the inequality and delays in social-economic development throughout the world by taking one of two divergent paths. The first path begins by focusing on a community’s needs, deficiencies and problems. The second path insists on beginning with a clear commitment to discovering a community’s capacities and assets. The first path is the traditional and by far the most traveled path. Among development activities, this ‘first path’ commands the vast majority of financial and human resources. For responsible, committed and traditional professionals, this ‘first path’ is usually the initial step of project implementation. The following is a discussion intended to explain why an attempt to add the second path is recommended to be among subsequent project objectives.
The ‘needs-driven path’ produces images of problematic and deficient communities populated by needy and problematic and deficient people. These negative images, which can be conceived as a kind of mental ‘map’ of the community often convey part of the truth about the actual conditions of a troubled community. But they are not regard as part of the truth; they are regarded as the whole truth.
Once accepted as the whole truth about troubled communities, this ‘needs’ map determines how problems are to be addressed through deficiency-oriented policies and programs. Public, private and nonprofit human service systems, often supported by university research and foundation funding, translate the programs into local activities that teach people the nature and extent of their problems, and the value of services as the answer to their problems. As a result, many lower income and troubled communities are now environments of service where behaviors are affected because residents come to believe that their well being depends upon being a client. They begin to see themselves as people with special needs that can only be met by outsiders. They become consumers of services, with no incentive to be producers. Consumers of services focus vast amounts of creativity and intelligence on the survival-motivated challenge of outwitting the ‘system’ or on finding ways—in the informal or even illegal economy—to bypass the system entirely.
There is nothing natural or inevitable about the process that leads to the creation of client communities. In fact, it is important to note how little power local neighborhood residents have to affect the pervasive nature of the deficiency model, mainly because a number of society’s most influential institutions have themselves developed a stake in maintaining that focus. For example, much of the social science research produced by universities is designed to collect and analyze data about problems. Much of the funding directed to lower income communities by foundations and government is based on the problem-oriented data collected in ‘needs surveys.’
The consequences for residents can be is devastating when the deficiency orientation, represented by the ‘needs map,’ constitutes the only guide to lower income communities. One of the most tragic consequences is that residents themselves begin to accept the needs map as the only guide to the reality of their lives. They think of themselves and their neighbors as fundamentally deficient, victims incapable of taking charge of their lives and of their community’s future. And, other consequences flow as well from the power of the needs map. For example:
If even some of these negative consequences follow from our total reliance upon the needs map, an alternative approach becomes imperative. That alternative path leads toward the development of policies and activities based on the capacities, skills, and assets of lower income people and their communities.
In addition to the problems associated with the dominant deficiency model, at least two more factors argue for shifting to a capacity-oriented emphasis. First, all the historic evidence indicates that significant community development takes place only when local community people are committed to investing themselves and their resources in the effort. This observation explains why communities are never built from the top down, or from the outside in. (Clearly, however, valuable outside assistance can be provided to communities that are actively developing their own assets.)
The second reason for emphasizing the development of the internal assets of local communities is that the prospect for outside help is bleak indeed. Even in areas designated as Enterprise Zones, the odds are long that sustainable large-scale, job-providing industrial or service corporations will be locating in these communities. Nor is it likely, in the light of continuing budget constraints, that significant new inputs of money will be forthcoming soon. It is increasingly futile to wait for significant help to arrive from outside the community. The hard truth is that development must start from within the community.
Creative community leaders have begun to recognize this hard truth, and have shifted their practices accordingly. They are discovering that wherever there are effective community development efforts, those efforts are based upon an understanding, or map, of the community’s assets, capacities and abilities. For it is clear that even the poorest community is a place where individuals and organization represent resources upon which to build or rebuild. The key to generation, is to locate all the available local assets, to begin connecting them with one another in ways that multiply their power and effectiveness, and to begin harnessing those local institutions that are not yet available for local development purposes.
This entire process begins with the construction of a new ‘map.’ Once this guide to capacities has replaced the old one containing only needs and deficiencies, the community can begin to assemble its strengths into new combinations, new structures of opportunity, new sources of income and control, and new possibilities for production.
Each community boasts a unique combination of assets upon which to build its future. A thorough map of those assets would begin with an inventory of the gifts, skills and capacities of the community’ s residents. Household by household, building by building, block by block, the capacity mapmakers will discover a vast and often surprising array of individual talents and productive skills, few of which are being mobilized for community-building purposes. This basic truth about the ‘giftedness’ of every individual is particularly important to apply to persons who often find themselves marginalized by society. It is essential to recognize the capacities, for example, of those who have been labeled mentally handicapped or disabled, or of those who are marginalized because they are too old, or too young, or too poor. In a community whose assets are being fully recognized and mobilized these people too will be part of the action, not as clients or recipients of aid, but as full contributors to the community-building process.
In addition to mapping the gifts and skills of individuals, and of households and families, the committed community builder will compile an inventory of citizens’ associations. These associations, less formal and much less dependent upon paid staff than are formal institutions, are the vehicles through which citizens assemble to solve problems, or to share common interests and activities. It is usually the case that the depth and extent of associational life in any community is vastly underestimated. This is particularly true of lower income communities. In fact, however, though some parts of associational life may have dwindled in very low income communities, most communities continue to harbor significant members of associations with religious, cultural, athletic, recreational and other purposes. Community builders soon recognize that these groups are indispensable tools for development, and that many of them can in fact be stretched beyond their original purposes and intentions to become full contributors to the development process.
Beyond individuals and local associations that make up the asset base of communities are all of the more formal institutions which are located in the community. Private businesses; public institutions such as schools, libraries, parks, police and fire stations; nonprofit institutions such as hospitals, clinics, social service agencies—these organizations make up the most visible and formal part of a community’ s fabric. Accounting for them in full, and enlisting them in the process of community development, is essential to the successes of the process. For community builders, the process of mapping the institutional assets of the community will often be much simpler than that of making an inventory involving individuals and associations. But, establishing within each institution a sense of responsibility for the health of the local community, along with mechanisms that allow communities to influence and even control some aspects of the institution’s relationships with its local neighborhood, can prove much more difficult. Nonetheless, a community that has located and mobilized its entire base of assets will clearly feature heavily involved and invested local institutions.
It is important to place this discussion in its larger contest. Two major qualifications should be stated as strongly as possible.
Skilled community organizers and effective community developers already recognize the importance of relationship building. For it is clear that the strong ties which form the basis for community-based problem solving have been under attack. The forces driving people apart are many and frequently cited—increasing mobility rates, the separation of work and residence, mass media, segregation by race and age, religion, education, family group and not the least from the point of view of lower income communities, increasing dependence upon outside, professional zed helpers.
Because of these factors, the sense of efficacy based on interdependence, the idea that people can count on their neighbors and neighborhood resources for support and strength has weakened. For community builders who are focused on assets, nurturing these local relationships offers the most promising route toward successful community development.
The skeleton of the second development path can be stated as follows: a community-building path that is asset-based, internally focused, and relationship driven.